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Volume 447: debated on Wednesday 7 June 2006

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.