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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 447: debated on Wednesday 7 June 2006

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Agriculture

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of subjects, including matters affecting agriculture in Wales.

I am pleased to hear about the Secretary of State’s ongoing discussions with other Cabinet colleagues. What precautions are the Government going to take to ensure that Welsh and other British farmers are not penalised in the next round of common agricultural policy reform? It is generally recognised that we have the most productive farmers, and they should be applauded for that. Europe should learn from that and our farmers should not be penalised—in Wales or in any other part of the United Kingdom.

I totally agree with the hon. Lady. It is important that we take forward the CAP reform agenda, and Britain is now acknowledged as leading in Europe on CAP reform. I can assure her that, although we want to introduce such reforms, the intention is not to penalise our own agricultural industry in doing so. It is clear that the reforms already in place have not penalised our farmers, and we want to continue in that vein.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the lifting of the beef exports ban will bring enormous benefits to Welsh farmers? Will he take it from me, as a Member of Parliament brought up on a Welsh smallholding many years ago, that Welsh beef is the best and will be a good ambassador for Wales?

Indeed—I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It may help the House if I remind everyone of what we lost during the past 10 years because of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy disaster, which happened under the last Government, and the resulting beef ban. In 1995, beef exports from the UK were worth £600 million, and 270,000 tonnes of British beef were exported. We have lost all that in 10 years, and we need to regain those markets. I am glad to say that Hybu Cig Cymru is marketing Welsh beef in Europe, and we have been very successful in securing contracts, particularly in Italy.

I agree with what the Minister has just said, but may I draw his attention to another important, current subject: the failure of the fallen stock scheme? This Government would not allow Wales, and north Wales in particular, to be exempted from the scheme, which, for obvious reasons that we warned about at the time, proved impractical. We now have rotting carcases throughout farms in north and mid-Wales, which is bad for biosecurity and human health and, I am afraid, the economy. Will the Minister please speak to his bungling colleagues in the National Assembly?

The issue is the failure of a company that has provided that service in north Wales, and I am assured that other companies are coming in to tackle the backlog. I agree that it is essential that we deal with the biosecurity issue, which is why the Assembly is tackling it by getting other fallen stock companies to clear up the backlog.

Borders mean nothing to animal disease, so dealing with tuberculosis in cattle and cattle movements between England and Wales requires close co-operation between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Assembly Government and the British Cattle Movement Service, as the Minister will doubtless acknowledge. What checks has he made on the co-ordination of data relating to pre-movement TB tests, and what percentage and number of TB reactors have so far been picked up in pre-movement testing in Wales?

I readily accept the need in the cross-border areas for both DEFRA and the Welsh Assembly Government’s agriculture department to work closely together, and my understanding is that that is happening. The hon. Lady will understand why I cannot give her the detailed figures that she has requested, but I will write to her with them.

Asbestos

2. What estimate he has made of the number of people in Wales affected by the recent Law Lords judgment on compensation for asbestos-related illnesses; and if he will make a statement. (74939)

My hon. Friend will recognise that this is an extremely complex area of law. The Government are examining the implications of the Law Lords ruling. It is not possible to provide reliable figures at this stage.

I disagree with the Minister: this is not a complex area of law, and it is up to this Government to legislate to make sure that decent working-class people get what they deserve. Four people die every week in Wales from asbestos-related cancer owing to the negligence of their former employer. What is the Minister going to do about the absolutely disgraceful Law Lords ruling, which deprives working-class people of their rightful deserts?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and other colleagues who are rightly campaigning on this issue. It is a vital concern for hundreds if not thousands of people who have been in contact with asbestos during their working lives. The Government fully understand the concerns expressed about the House of Lords judgment in the Barker v. Corus case and we are sympathetic to the claimants. The judgment raises serious and complex issues and it is important to ensure that we get the right answer. We are therefore exploring all options with the relevant stakeholders to achieve a solution that is fair, but also workable.

We support the Government in dealing with asbestos-related illnesses, but will the Minister also consider dealing with the miners who have dust-related injuries and have not yet received their compensation? I refer to one of my constituents, Donald Watkins of Pontneathvaughn, who has been waiting six and a half years. These miners are becoming older and iller by the day and the same sometimes applies to their widows. Will the Minister cut through the crap and ensure that they get the compensation that they deserve?

I chair the coal health monitoring group for Wales and if the hon. Gentleman will let me know the details of his constituent who has been waiting too long for compensation, I will look into it. I should remind him, however, that this is the biggest industrial injury civil action case that the world has ever seen. Throughout the UK, we have already paid out £3 billion to miners; and in Wales the payment is £565 million. As I said, if the hon. Gentleman gives me the details, I will certainly inquire further into why it has taken so long to settle that case.

I want to reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn). The Barker decision was a disgrace and we must restore the position. The Minister will be aware of the enormous increase in the number of mesothelioma cases both in Wales and the UK more widely. For example, over the last 40 years, the number has increased from 153 to almost 2,000. Will my hon. Friend give his support to other Ministers in calling for an amendment to restore the law to what it was before the Barker judgment?

As I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), we are very sympathetic to the position that claimants are in as a result of the Law Lords’ judgment in the Barker v. Corus case. We are hopeful that an announcement will be made shortly about how the Government intend to tackle that serious issue.

Welsh Produce

3. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Assembly Government on encouraging the promotion of Welsh produce in England. (74940)

I have regular discussions with the Assembly Agriculture Minister about a range of issues, including the promotion of Welsh food and drinks products to external markets.

If I were to take you, Mr. Speaker, to Dolffanog Fach, or perhaps the Old Rectory overlooking the Tal-y-llyn lake not far from Abergynolwyn in mid-Wales, you would have the opportunity to eat the finest Welsh beef made from Welsh black cattle. We heard about that earlier, but I should not have to take you that far, Mr. Speaker. I could take you to the White Hart in London, but other places do not serve Welsh black cattle beef. What can the Minister do to ensure that England and Scotland enjoy the benefits of the finest British beef—Welsh black cattle?

I am tempted to take the advice that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is giving me and suggest that the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) become an ambassador for Welsh produce. He is quite right that Wales produces some of the finest livestock in the world. Welsh black beef, in particular, is an excellent product. The Welsh Assembly Government have processing and marketing grants that assist in the marketing of Welsh produce, not just in England but throughout Europe. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to join me in congratulating the Welsh chef, Bryn Williams, on winning a chance to cook for the Queen’s 80th birthday celebrations, and I am particularly pleased that he will be sourcing all his ingredients from Wales. That is another way of marketing Wales’ excellent food products.

Has my hon. Friend noticed that much Welsh produce is often marketed in England as English? For instance, many of Burberry’s materials are made in the Rhondda, but say “Made in England” all over them. For that matter, some of the best cricket players in this country who play for the English cricket team are actually made in Wales. Is it not time that we were a bit more honest and reminded the cricket authorities that they are the England and Wales Cricket Board? Would it not be nice if my hon. Friend were able to eat some Welsh—

We may have strayed a bit from the original question, but the National Assembly is concerned to promote the Welsh brand and to brand Welsh products—including cricketers, I expect. Several initiatives are under way on food products, and I welcome the opening last month of Lloyd’s dairy in Islington, a recreation of one of the old Welsh dairy shops that used to proliferate in north and west London. Part of the shop specialises in and promotes Welsh organic produce.

Does the Minister agree that fundamental to the promotion of Welsh produce in England is the ability to transport that produce to England in the first place? Does he therefore share my concern at the continuing closure of the A5 trunk road between Maerdy and Dinmael, which was closed with little warning on 26 May and remains closed with no indication of when it will be reopened? Does he share my despair at the incompetence of the Assembly in dealing with the issue?

I accept the importance of reopening the A5 as quickly as possible. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the closure was because of a serious risk of injury from an unstable cliff face. He will also be aware that while most landowners on the old A5, which could provide an alternative route, are co-operating with the Welsh Assembly Government, one has unfortunately decided not to do so at this stage. The matter needs to be addressed quickly and I understand that Andrew Davies, the Minister with responsibility for transport in Wales, is dealing with it as a priority. Its importance is recognised, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to make his views known, I will pass them on to Andrew Davies. Perhaps he should also make a direct approach.

Post Office

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but six out of 10 of the sub-postmasters in my constituency are concerned about the viability of their businesses once they lose the income from the Post Office card account in 2010. That has major ramifications for the wider community across rural Wales, which are some of the remotest communities in the country. I urge the Secretary of State to encourage his colleagues to undertake, at the very least, an urgent review of post office service provision in rural areas, and preferably to scrap the proposals to abolish the Post Office card account.

We are looking closely at the matter, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are providing £150 million a year to support rural post offices, as part of a £2 billion investment in the post office network since 1999. None of that would have been made if his party’s policy of privatising the Post Office had been implemented.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is the Government’s rules on matters such as automatic credit transfer and the failure to support Post Office accounts that have led to post offices closing in rural communities the length and breadth of Wales? Will he apologise to the communities affected and tell us what the Government intend to do now to ensure that the post offices that remain continue to be viable?

I have just described what we are doing. This is a difficult issue, and I remind the hon. Gentleman that it costs the Government 1p to pay a benefit into a bank account, but £1 per transaction to a Post Office card account. I know that in many villages in my constituency and, I expect, in his, there are senior citizens who depend on the local post office, and we want to see them kept open if at all possible. That is why we are providing the investment. But the issue is not as simple as just keeping the Post Office card account, and it is certainly not acceptable to support privatisation of the Post Office, as the Liberal Democrats advocate.

Banks have closed branches in rural and valley communities, and one adult in seven in Wales does not have a bank account. Does not the Secretary of State see that the Post Office card account, which is used by 360,000 people, is vital to combating financial exclusion in disadvantaged communities?

I agree that the card account has played an important role in constituencies such as the hon. Gentleman’s and mine, and that is why we are looking at it so carefully. However, another 25 different accounts, including bank services, can be accessed at post offices. This is an issue that we are going to address.

How do the Secretary of State’s warm words square with what the Post Office chief executive said when he reckoned that he could do without 10,500 post offices? The Government are making that easier by removing income from post offices, and by the end of this month people will no longer be able to buy a TV licence at one. At present, they can use the cheque-and-send service to obtain a passport, for example, from the Bethcar street branch in Ebbw Vale, but will the introduction of the new biometric checks for passports mean that another service is to be lost, under Labour, to post offices and local people in Wales?

Talking of Ebbw Vale, the Labour party in Blaenau Gwent is calling for the Welsh Assembly’s post office development fund to be reopened. That is part of Labour’s commitment to local post offices right across Wales.

NHS

I regularly meet the First Minister and members of his Cabinet. The Assembly Government is investing record amounts in the NHS in Wales, and is delivering real improvements in the standard of services to patients.

The Secretary of State may be aware that many of my constituents are registered with GPs based in Wales, and that they have to wait longer for treatment than others who are registered with GPs based in England. That unacceptable problem was supposed to have been fixed this April, but the decision has now been deferred until next April. Will he talk to his colleague the Secretary of State for Health and to the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that the decision is brought forward to as early a date as possible?

I want to tell the hon. Gentleman how massive the improvements in health performance and waiting times in Wales have been. More than 213,000 extra patients have been seen in Welsh hospitals since we came to power. Waiting times have plummeted since 1997: in the past year, only 30 patients in Wales waited more than 12 months for treatment—a massive cut of nearly 14,500. The aim is that, by March next year, no patient will have to wait more than eight months. By the end of December 2009, the maximum total wait, from GP referral to receiving treatment, will be 26 weeks. That is a massive improvement, and the hon. Gentleman ought to welcome it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the dramatic turnaround in the health service in Wales is due to the hard work of NHS employees there? No patient now waits more than 12 months for in-patient or day-case treatment. Is that not a tremendous tribute to the work of the health service in Wales?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. When we came to power, people who needed orthopaedic operations, such as ex-miners and so on, had to wait years and years. That was what we inherited, but our investment in and reform of the health service in Wales have caused those figures to plummet. Moreover, since we came to power, we have been able to recruit 450 more consultants and more than 7,300 more qualified nurses in Wales. That is another sign that Labour invests in the NHS, and that the health service in Wales will be safe only under Labour.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Telford and Wrekin primary care trust board plans to withdraw from the process of re-providing Shelton hospital? The lack of mental health provision in mid-Wales means that cutting that vital facility would have serious consequences for the whole of central Wales. Will he make representations to the Telford and Wrekin PCT, which is an English health trust, to protect a service that is crucial and irreplaceable?

I fully accept that for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and for him this is a very serious matter and, of course, I am happy to make those representations to assist him and his constituents to see whether we can resolve the problem.

Sometimes I think that the Secretary of State lives on another planet and does not spend enough time in Wales. With the NHS in Wales £71 million in debt, the former chief executive of the ambulance service claiming that the service is in crisis and that lives are being lost, hospitals such as Withybush, Bronglais and Llandudno under threat, and 60 per cent. more people waiting for treatment than when the Assembly Government came to power, does the Secretary of State think that the Welsh Health Minister is fit for purpose?

That really takes the biscuit. The hon. Lady does not even represent a Welsh constituency. I live in Wales. I am in Wales every weekend in my constituency, so she should not make accusations like that. When she looks at the record of health investment in Wales, plummeting waiting times, extra nurses, extra doctors, improved health performance, and 10 new hospitals being built or already built in Wales under our Government compared with all the hospital closures that the Tories were responsible for, she will realise that people in Wales know that it is only under Labour that the health service is safe in Wales.

2012 Olympics

6. What discussions he has had with the First Minister on maximising the opportunities for Wales from the 2012 Olympic games. (74943)

My right hon. Friend and I, along with the Welsh Assembly Government, are working to maximise the benefits brought to Wales by the London Olympic and Paralympic games. Wales has many excellent training facilities and will offer a warm welcome to visiting teams and their supporters, and I am delighted that the Millennium stadium in Cardiff will host part of the Olympic football tournament.

I am grateful for that answer. Will Ministers in the UK and Welsh Governments realise that, if we follow the example of the Sydney Olympics, where much of the training was done a long way away, there is a great opportunity to use the swimming facilities at Swansea, the velodrome in Newport, the Millennium stadium in Cardiff and, I am sure, the wide range of facilities in Blaenau Gwent? Will they all be put to maximum use and can we have a commitment?

I can certainly give that commitment to the hon. Gentleman. He is quite right that, at the Sydney Olympics, more than £400 million was spread throughout the economy in New South Wales in 2000. We intend to ensure that as much of the benefit as possible is spread throughout the UK—particularly in Wales. As he rightly says, we have a wide range of facilities: the velodrome, the national pool in Swansea and the Menai sailing centre. All those are good potential training facilities for teams and we will certainly push that forward.

The Olympic Delivery Authority has given a commitment that the 2012 Olympics will be the most sustainable ever. Given the strength of Wales’s renewable energy manufacturing industry, such as Sharp UK in my constituency, which makes photovoltaic cells, will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss the potential for Welsh manufacturers to serve the Olympics in 2012?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. He may know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already written to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to push the importance of renewable energy facilities in the new buildings related to the Olympic games. I will be able to give him further information when we meet in the near future.

Pensions

7. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of pensions policy on the people of Wales. (74944)

The pensions White Paper shows that under our Government’s policies, Welsh pensioners can be assured of proper pension provision in an ageing society.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. I welcome the Government White Paper, which is building a consensus for pensioners for the future. At present, many pensioners throughout Wales, including in my constituency, benefit considerably from the pension credit. Will he ensure that, during the transition period to the earnings link, pensioners on pension credit do not lose out; and will he further urge the Department for Work and Pensions to campaign vigorously so that there is a greater take-up of pension credits throughout Wales by our neediest pensioners?

We will certainly do that. Indeed, the pension credit has been of enormous benefit to pensioners in Wales and, in particular, to some of the poorest pensioners in Blaenau Gwent, where 4,760 of them have benefited from it. The people of Blaenau Gwent and Wales as a whole need to be told by the Leader of the Opposition whether he will maintain his policy of abolishing the pension credit system.

Does the Secretary of State accept that many people in Wales are disappointed by the Government’s pension proposals and would much prefer a citizens pension that is paid to everyone at a decent level to be a right of Welsh citizenship?

The people of Wales pensioned off Plaid Cymru years ago. It is the Labour party that is providing a future policy for the people of Wales and the United Kingdom so that they can look forward to security and decency in retirement.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Before I list my engagements, I know that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to the families of Lieutenant Tom Mildinhall and Lance-Corporal Paul Farrelly, who, sadly, were killed in Iraq last week. They were doing a vital job for their country and the security of the wider world, and we should be proud of them.

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.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to be associated with the Prime Minister’s remarks.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there are political groups in the European Parliament that are opposed to women standing for election, that are homophobic and that wish to ban bicycle riding on Sundays. Will he undertake to keep this Government in the mainstream of European politics, rather than on the extreme right-wing fringe, where the Opposition would like to put us?

It would be a gross error of judgment and leadership to leave the mainstream groupings in Europe, because that would marginalise a party in Europe—and if the Conservative party were ever to be the Government, that would marginalise the Government. If one wants any proof of that, one can see that the Conservative party website boasts about the role played by one of its members in the services directorate as a spokesman for the European People’s Party, although the party now wants to leave that group. I suggest that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) show some leadership and ditch that policy as well.

May I add my tribute and those of my hon. Friends to the soldiers who died in Iraq serving their country? I also add a tribute to the members of the camera crew who lost their lives in Iraq.

In the past week, we have discovered that in each of the past two years almost 2 million households have been overpaid tax credits, by £2 billion. Some of the poorest households in Britain are now having that money painfully clawed back. The Treasury Committee says that the Department was incompetent. Will the Prime Minister tell us which member of the Cabinet is responsible for this piece of incompetence?

Let me just point out to the right hon. Gentleman that tax credits provide support to some 20 million in this country, including 6 million families and 10 million children. They are responsible for lifting 700,000 children out of poverty and 2 million pensioners out of acute hardship. The Government are proud of the role that tax credits are playing in alleviating poverty in our country.

The Chancellor is responsible—and it has come to a pretty pass when the Prime Minister cannot even bear to say his name. Citizens Advice says that the Chancellor’s system has left families in “severe hardship” and that the number of people coming for help has not dropped. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who was the first welfare reform Minister in this Government, says that the Chancellor’s approach is

“like attempting keyhole surgery with a hacksaw”.

What is the Prime Minister going to do to ensure that the Chancellor takes responsibility and sorts out this mess?

With the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, let me point out to him what tax credits have enabled us to do. We have 2 million more people at work in this country. That is in part not just because of the minimum wage, which he opposed, but because of the working families tax credit, which makes work pay for people. As a result of the children’s tax credit, we have been able to give help to millions of families in this country. Those families were let down by the Tory years of boom-and-bust economics, high unemployment and poverty, which was why we made the change, and we are proud of it.

But all our surgeries are full of the victims of incompetence—[Interruption.] Yes, his incompetence—the Chancellor designed and administered the tax credit system, yet he has not made a single statement, or answered a single oral question in the House of Commons, on tax credits in the past year. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that Ministers should not just blame officials when things go wrong. I agree with that. But is not the Chancellor’s behaviour typical of this Government? Ministers create a massive bureaucracy that becomes a painful paper chase for hard-working families, so why do they refuse to take responsibility when it all goes wrong?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about families coming to his constituency and other constituencies—but we remember when families used to come to our constituency surgeries at the time of 10 or 15 per cent. interest rates, with kids who could not get jobs for years. There were families with kids living in poverty, and nothing was done about it. Yes, it is true—tax credits have helped millions of families in this country. The problems that are there will be dealt with. We are glad that under this Government families have not just a stable economy, but a Government who back children and families, and help them out of poverty into work and into a decent standard of living.

The Prime Minister has indicated that the nuclear energy option is back on the agenda for policy review. Will he recognise that many of us, particularly people on the east coast of Ireland, are totally opposed to the expansion of nuclear energy because of our experiences of the output, the outfall and the discharges from Sellafield? What cognisance and what weight will be given to the opinion of the people of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland, who will be affected if the policy is pursued?

Of course we will give full weight to that. That is one of the reasons why we have reduced discharges considerably over the past few years. However, I must tell my hon. Friend that this is not about an expansion of nuclear power. The fact is that over the next 15 or 20 years we will lose that 20 per cent. of our electricity presently generated by nuclear power. It is in the interests of people in Northern Ireland and in the whole of the United Kingdom that we have secure supplies of energy for the future. Therefore, we need a balanced energy policy. A major component of that will be additional renewable energy and a big push on energy efficiency. My own view is that we need a mix of all these things if we are to safeguard the future of the country.

May I begin by associating my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of sympathy and condolence for those who have died in Iraq? Such events happen too often on the occasion of these proceedings.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that the United Kingdom has given no logistical support for rendition to the CIA nor provided any information to be used in torture?

We have said absolutely all that we have to say on this. There is nothing more to add to it. The Council of Europe report adds nothing new whatever to the information that we have.

I think that the Prime Minister might find careful reading of the Council of Europe report particularly rewarding. It says that rendition involves disappearances, secret detention and unlawful transfers to countries that practise torture. On 7 December the Prime Minister told the House that he fully endorsed rendition. Does he still do so now?

I think that what I actually said was that rendition had been the policy of the American Government for a long period, under the last Administration as well as this Administration. We have kept Parliament informed of all the requests that we are aware of: four in 1998, two of which were granted and two declined. As for the rest of what is in the Council of Europe’s report, that concerns other countries, and obviously I am not in a position to speak about them.

Last year the Derbyshire asbestos support team helped nine people in Amber Valley suffering from asbestos-related diseases, two of whom have since died from mesothelioma. Will my right hon. Friend discuss with his Cabinet colleagues whether the excellent Compensation Bill that will be discussed in the House tomorrow can be amended to reverse the appalling House of Lords Barker judgment that denies justice and compensation to many people suffering from that long-drawn-out disease?

I totally understand my hon. Friend’s concern. As I said a short time ago in the House, we are looking at this very carefully in the context of the legislation that she described, and I hope that we will be in a position to make an announcement shortly.

Q2. I start by declaring an interest because, along with the governor of California and one or two hon. Members, my body mass index is over 30. A growing number of primary care trusts have refused to put patients on waiting lists unless their body mass index is under 30, to save money, reduce deficits and ration health care. Does the Prime Minister believe that that is an acceptable way of rationing access to health care? (74878)

What I can tell the hon. Gentleman about the waiting times in his area—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] Well, he was talking about people who have been put on waiting lists, and the fact is that the number of people waiting more than six months for treatment was 5,000 when we came to power, but it is zero today. What is more, in-patients are being treated more quickly. Under this Government, we are investing more and the national health service is getting better.

My right hon. Friend knows the joys of family life. He knows, too, that this Saturday is national infertility day. Thousands of couples remain childless, and they desperately hope to access the medical intervention of in vitro fertilisation in the hope that it will give them the precious gift of a child. Will he restate the commitment that he gave in February 2004 that every infertile couple should be given one NHS IVF treatment, and will he join me in condemning the 25 per cent. of primary care trusts that deny people access to IVF and other PCTs that claim that it is only available to couples over 30, when the intervention process is seriously dysfunctional?

We are working with the leading organisation for patients requiring fertility treatment—the Infertility Network UK—to help them in their relationships with the primary care trusts to make sure that their voice is heard. Ultimately, those are decisions for primary care trusts, but it is important that the cycle of treatment is available to people. Obviously, it is agonising for the families involved, which is one reason why we asked the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to produce a report, which was published last December. We will do all that we can to take it forward.

Fatal stabbings have increased by almost a fifth in the past eight years, and now represent a third of all recorded killings. Six months ago, the Labour party voted against our proposal to increase the sentence for carrying a knife. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will support a tougher sentence, and will he tell us when it will be introduced in the House?

As I think the Home Secretary has made clear, we will look carefully at the issue of whether we need to toughen the minimum standard for sentences for individuals who are in illegal possession of a knife. As my right hon. Friend explained when this was debated, there are issues about whether it is possible to do this in a sensible way, but I totally agree that knife crime is extremely serious. That is why we have extended the types of knives banned under the legislation, and why we have made sure—for example, in sentencing guidelines—that sentences are tough for individuals who carry knives.

But in December 2004, on “This Morning” on ITV, the Prime Minister said that he would look at toughening sentences for carrying knives. Why did nothing happen?

A lot has happened—[Interruption.] May I just explain what has happened? Following the introduction of the legislation, if a knife is listed as an offensive weapon, the maximum penalty for carrying it is four years. Since 1997 we have added stealth knives, disguised knives and batons to the offensive weapons list. We are raising the minimum age at which someone can buy a knife from 16 to 18. There is a new offence of using someone to mind a weapon, and there are extra powers, along with extra resources, for head teachers to search pupils for weapons. In addition, there was a national knife amnesty a short time ago. I will look at whether we need to increase minimum sentences. As I said, the issues were explained in detail when the matter was last debated, but in principle, we want to make sure that anybody who is found in illegal possession of a knife is subject to the toughest penalties possible. May I point out to the House that in respect of firearms, we introduced a mandatory minimum five-year sentence, which is now in operation?

At about the same time as Kiyan Prince was being murdered with a knife, a head teacher at a school in my constituency was being forced by the independent appeals panel to take a boy back into school. The boy had been found in possession of a knife, and had been found guilty of violent conduct. Understandably, the head teacher is angry and in despair at this perverse judgment of the appeals panel. Will my right hon. Friend look into the case, with a view to changing the procedures so that such a perverse judgment cannot be made again?

I certainly will. It seems an extraordinary decision to come to. These decisions are made by people locally, but I will certainly look into the point that my hon. Friend raises.

Q3. In the light of yesterday’s report from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, does the Prime Minister now accept that my constituents are right in believing that the huge number of extra homes being foisted on the south-east by the Deputy Prime Minister will make the current water crisis even worse? (74879)

No, they will not. There is provision for the additional homes that are to be built to have the proper water supply. We work carefully with Ofwat and with the water companies to achieve that. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues to say that they are against the building of new homes—but let me read to him what the shadow Chancellor said just a few days ago, when addressing something called Property Week, which I suppose is intended for property developers. He said:

“We should increase supply of affordable new homes…We should see if we can make new land available for development, but we should demand that developers do not simply bank it but bring it forward for building.”

So I think there is a slight instance of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) saying one thing and the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) saying another.

As you are aware, because of your generous support, Mr. Speaker, 100 Members from all parts of the House will be taking part in the Westminster mile for Sport Relief in the next hour or so, to be started by Roger Bannister. Will my right hon. Friend pass on his congratulations to Sport Relief on its work and the projects that it runs? Will he commit himself to taking part, as he did in 2004? Most importantly, will he put at the heart of the Government’s approach tackling poverty both at home and abroad, to make sure that in the future projects like Sport Relief are not needed, because we have the means and the technology—now we just need the political will—to tackle the worst causes of poverty across the globe?

I am taking part in the mile run in aid of Sport Relief, and my hon. Friend is right to say that it is important. I understand that more than 100 hon. Members have signed up to run. My briefing tells me to say that I hope that the sight of MPs in their running gear will encourage all people to participate in the run. That may be slightly sanguine, but it is an excellent idea none the less, and Sport Relief does a huge amount of work right across the globe to relieve poverty.

Q4. Every year hundreds and possibly thousands of people, including young children, are brought into this country under the cruel practice of human trafficking. This is modern-day slavery. What measures does the Prime Minister have in mind to ensure that this barbaric practice is put to an end in the United Kingdom and abroad? (74880)

The most important thing is to work with the new Serious Organised Crime Agency, which has a specific remit, along with the intelligence services, to try to track down those who are engaged in people trafficking. The hon. Gentleman is right to describe it as a problem, but the only way of resolving it is by means of the measures that we have introduced, which will allow us to seize the assets of people engaged in this trade. I hope that when we introduce new measures, which we will do in the autumn, specifically to tackle organised crime, of which people trafficking is a part, his party will support those measures. The last time we introduced such measures—[Interruption.] I am afraid that the Opposition did not support them. It is important that the next time we do, they do.

Q5. Does my right hon. Friend share the concerns that many of us have about the increase and potential increase in counterfeit drugs? More than 2,400 internet sites sell drugs, of which experts believe 80 per cent. are counterfeit. Last year, a man with a lab in his kitchen that could produce a million drugs a day was jailed, and two weeks ago in my constituency two people were arrested in connection with chemicals that could produce a date rape drug. Does he share our concerns? (74881)

I do, and my hon. Friend is quite right to say that this is not just a problem here but a global problem. We are working closely with the Medicines and Health Care products Regulatory Agency, the industry and other key stakeholders and international counterparts to combat the threat of counterfeit medicines, so I can assure him that we take it very seriously indeed.

Q6. The Prime Minister may have seen the remarks by his colleague, the Labour Mayor of London, that Crossrail is necessary to enable Scotland to live the lifestyle to which it is accustomed. Does that not show something of a brass neck, considering that this year £12 billion of Scottish oil revenues are enabling the Prime Minister’s Government to live in the style to which they have become accustomed? (74882)

Crossrail is important for London and the whole country, but what would be absolutely disastrous for Scotland would be to separate Scotland from the United Kingdom. That would be devastating for jobs in Scotland, devastating for the economy and devastating for the Scottish people, which is probably why the hon. Gentleman supports it.

Will my right hon. Friend accept my personal gratitude for his swift response to a recent meeting that I had in his office, along with the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and representatives from the Association of Children’s Hospices, in granting an additional £27 million over the next three years to children’s hospices? That is fantastic news, but will my right hon. Friend give me his reassurance that the Government will continue to have discussions and engage with the association, not just in the short term but in the medium and long term, on children’s palliative care?

I congratulate my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) and others who made their case in an extremely persuasive way, along with the children’s hospice movement. We are pleased that we have been able to find £27 million over the next three years. My hon. Friend is right that we also need to review the long-term arrangements for the way in which hospices are funded—a point that was impressed on me very strongly. That review will now take place, and we will work closely with the children’s hospice movement and others, including my hon. Friend, to find the right solution.

Q7. As the Prime Minister has already said, he rightly seeks to secure the energy security of the UK in the future. In this context, once the energy review has published its findings, or even before that, will he meet a delegation led by the Centre for Alternative Technology to discuss how Wales could address its energy needs by entirely sustainable means and without nuclear power? Clearly, such a meeting would not commit him to that blueprint, but the dialogue would contribute towards our shared goal of addressing the looming energy crisis safely and effectively. (74883)

I am sure that it is important that we engage in a dialogue with all interested groups, including the Centre for Alternative Technology, but the hon. Gentleman will realise that we must balance the energy interests of the whole of the United Kingdom.

Q8. The pension credit system has been absolutely brilliant in my constituency. More than 5,600 pensioners now receive up to £30 a week more than they would have done if the Tories’ income support had stayed. But just occasionally, errors are made. When official error does occur, will my right hon. Friend endorse the sympathetic approach that is usually applied by officials when hardship results? (74884)

That is important, of course, particularly when dealing with pensioners, but my hon. Friend is right to say that as a result of the pension credit, there are people who are receiving £40 a week more. These are pensioners who under the previous Government in the winter months would very often have to choose between heating and eating. Now they have not merely the winter fuel allowance, but the extra support for energy and home insulation. The pension credit gives literally hundreds of thousands of pensioners a decent standard of living for the first time in their lives, and we can be very proud of having introduced it.

Is the Prime Minister aware that ending the sale of television licences at post offices, together with ending the Post Office card account, will cause a catastrophic loss of income for many thousands of post offices, as well as serious inconvenience for many people living in rural areas? Will he meet a delegation of postmasters from the highlands to discuss how his Government can better support post offices, rather than undermining them at every turn?

It is not our intention to undermine post offices, but as technology and people’s lifestyles change, it is necessary to make reforms. The problem is that we already subsidise our post offices to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds, and we must look carefully at how we manage to make ends meet within the public finances while providing rational and logical support to post offices. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will make his point to the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Q9. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that there is concern in the west midlands about manufacturing. With Peugeot, the trade unions appreciate the fact that the Government got discussions going, but the problem is that the company will not engage in meaningful discussions about the trade unions’ alternative. Will my right hon. Friend have a word with the company’s senior executives to start meaningful discussions? (74885)

I certainly agree that it is important that the company gives the unions’ alternative proposal to keep Ryton open the most serious consideration, and we will do what we can to make sure that it does. In the end, the matter is a commercial decision for the company, and I think that everyone understands that, but if anybody is made redundant, the partnership that has been set up in the area will do its utmost to make sure that they are given the fullest possible support. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that every alternative is considered, because the closure of that plant would mean difficulty and hardship for hundreds of families.

Is the Prime Minister aware that there will be great delight at yesterday’s acquittal of the guardsmen? However, there will also be bewilderment, and indeed a degree of shame, that men with such fine service should have been placed in such a position on such flimsy evidence. Can the Prime Minister imagine what it is like to be a young soldier in Basra, having to look ahead for bombers and snipers and behind for the Attorney-General?

That last point is wrong and unfair. I am delighted that the soldiers were acquitted, and I hope that the lessons will be learned by the prosecuting authorities. As the hon. Gentleman knows—I hope that he will not suggest otherwise—decisions to prosecute are entirely separate from Ministers.

Q10. Thanks to the Chancellor’s economic miracle, unemployment, which the Tories deliberately caused, has been eradicated in most of this country, but in some constituencies, such as mine, it remains a serious problem that lies at the heart of white working-class alienation, which risks becoming a thematic undercurrent. Will my right hon. Friend set up a working group now to deal with that scourge, so that those people—our people—know that they have not been forgotten, and that the miracle has not left them behind? (74886)

As my hon. Friend has said, it is important that we tackle the remaining areas of unemployment in our country, and inner-city regeneration is one way of doing so. In our view—this is a major point of difference with the Conservative party—we should expand and extend the new deal for the unemployed, rather than closing it down, which the Conservative party would do. If we want to tackle unemployment, the new deal for communities and the new deal for the unemployed should be deepened and strengthened and should not be cut back. I will certainly consider my hon. Friend’s remarks in that context.

Will the Prime Minister agree to discuss with his Secretary of State for Education and Skills the range of inspection grades available to Ofsted teams, which are currently “outstanding”, “good”, “satisfactory” and “inadequate”? In a recent inspection at the Sacred Heart of Mary girls’ school in Upminster, which was very good overall, its achievement levels were described thus:

“no underachievement in any group”

and “students achieve exceptionally well”. The team did not seem able to describe that performance as “outstanding”, so it was described as “good”. Does the Prime Minister agree that there is a huge gulf between “outstanding” and “good”? Will he agree to discuss with his Secretary of State the introduction of an in-between grade of “very good”?

I will certainly consider what the hon. Lady says, but she will probably understand that in the end it would not be wise for me or the Secretary of State to make those judgments; that has to be left to local inspectors. I am sure that the people in her local school of the Sacred Heart at Upminster do a superb job for their children, and I congratulate them on the strong showing that they made in the report—but it is difficult for me to intervene in the way in which reports are written.

Q11. Salford city council has been very effective in reducing antisocial behaviour through using antisocial behaviour orders, joint working, and the Together action line. However, we still have some problem families who can make other residents’ lives a misery. Can my right hon. Friend tell me when we will be able to take forward the measures to insist on rehabilitation for people evicted as a result of antisocial behaviour, so that nuisance neighbours are helped to change their behaviour and not just moved around? (74887)

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the problems of antisocial behaviour. As a result of the new powers, drug dealers’ homes can be shut down and people can be evicted from them, and antisocial behaviour orders and dispersal orders have a real effect in many communities. However, we are looking to see how we can strengthen this still further. We particularly want to ensure that those who are evicted and then receive new tenancies do so under the strictest possible conditions and restraint, and that we have a system to ensure that where people move across different areas there is some sharing of the available information. Antisocial behaviour is still a huge issue for people in very many communities, but the new powers and resources are making a real difference where they are being applied. I make it clear again that if the police and local authorities want even further powers to deal with it, we shall give them those powers.