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Prime Minister

Volume 447: debated on Wednesday 14 June 2006

The Prime Minister was asked—

Bichard Inquiry

Q1. If he will reconvene the Bichard inquiry team to consider how its recommendations may be implemented more quickly. (77004)

Twenty-one out of the 31 Bichard recommendations have now been implemented. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, which will put into place the new vetting and barring scheme, has completed its passage through the House of Lords and will have its Second Reading in the House of Commons on 19 June. We are reporting progress regularly to Parliament, most recently on 25 May, and we see no need at present to reconvene the inquiry team.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. As he knows, it is now two years since Sir Michael Bichard made his central recommendation for the police national information technology system. That system will not be available, if at all, until after 2010, and some of the latest cost estimates are up around the £2 billion mark. Will my right hon. Friend reconsider recalling Sir Michael Bichard, first, to allow him to judge progress against his recommendations, and secondly, to ensure that his recommendations do not go the same way as those that came from Dunblane?

I entirely understand why my hon. Friend raises this. It is very important to say that although the full impact recommendations will not come in until later, the data-sharing arrangements, including the sharing of intelligence, will come in next year. We will certainly look at how we can speed up the recommendations. However, as my hon. Friend rightly says, this is going to be difficult and complicated. It requires a lot of changes, not only in police practice but elsewhere, and we have to ensure that we get the delivery of this programme right. I ask him to bear in mind that, as I say, from the end of next year we should have the main data-sharing arrangements in place. If we can possibly speed that up—if necessary, we are perfectly happy to reconvene the inquiry team if that helps, but at the moment we do not think that it would—then we will of course do so.

The Prime Minister has no doubt heard, as we all have, reference to Departments being not fit for purpose, most notably the recent reference to the Home Office. Could he tell the House—

Order. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be experienced enough to know that this is a closed question. I call Joan Walley.

Engagements

Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will join me in mourning the death of Captain Jim Philippson, who was killed in action in Afghanistan at the weekend. I know that we all extend our deep sympathy and condolences to his family and friends.

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.

May I, too, express my sympathies to the families concerned?

Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing the England team every continuing success? While football is centre-stage, will he also join me in welcoming the report of the independent European sport review, which was initiated under our presidency and under the leadership of our Sports Minister, Captain Caborn? Will the Prime Minister set out what action he can take on the report, which is designed to protect football and—

First, I am sure that we all wish the England team the best of luck in the match tomorrow. Secondly, as I said in answer to a question a few weeks ago, some recommendations in the independent European report are difficult—for example, trying to set a cap on players’ wages. However, some of the other aspects, especially those that try to bring greater integrity to the way in which some of the financial transactions are conducted, are worth while and we will study the report carefully.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain Jim Philippson and sending our condolences to his family. Our troops are doing difficult work in Afghanistan, and they have our support.

In the past 40 days, the new Home Secretary has been hard at work. He potentially undermined his Department’s deportation proceedings, he shelved his anti-crime campaign at the last minute, he misled the public about the employment of illegal immigrants in his Department and now he has criticised judges for their implementation of new Labour law. Can the Prime Minister detect any early signs that this Home Secretary will be any better than the last?

Since the right hon. Gentleman and his shadow Home Secretary have been complaining about life sentences and prisoners being released early after being sentenced to life, I want to explain to the House how that has come about. Of the 53 prisoners, the vast bulk were given automatic life sentences under the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997—before we came to office. The automatic life sentences were given for second offences. We changed the law in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to allow indeterminate sentences to be given. Since April 2005, when the Act came into effect, there have been 1,000 of those sentences. Six of those people have been considered for parole and no parole has been given.

However, that is not the point that I wanted to make. I wanted to make the point that, when the Criminal Justice Act came before the House, the Conservative party voted against it.

Let us go straight to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and consider the Home Secretary’s attack on the judge who gave the paedophile a sentence that could turn out to be as little as six years. Is not it the case that the 18-year sentence was reduced by a third because of the Sentencing Guidelines Council that the Prime Minister introduced? Is not it also the case that the individual could be let out halfway through his sentence—only six years—under the 2003 Act that the Prime Minister introduced and we voted against?

The right hon. Gentleman is talking absolute rubbish. The Sentencing Guidelines Council was supported across the House. The individual whom he mentions and others do not now need to be released because of the powers in the Act. Before the 2003 Act—he can check this with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis)—someone who was sentenced to more than four years’ imprisonment was automatically paroled at the two thirds point, irrespective of what happened. Under the Act, that right to automatic parole was taken away. The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues voted against that as well.

If we are going to talk about facts—and I am happy to talk about antisocial behaviour, about which he attacked us and which he again dismissed as a gimmick, even though the powers are doing good in communities throughout the country, or assets recovery, which his lot tried to water down—the truth is that he and his hon. Friends talk tough in the media and vote soft in Parliament.

The point about the 2003 Act is that it means that criminals are released halfway through their sentence. I know a thing or two about the 2003 Act—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr. Norris, I know that you are enjoying yourself, but I must ask you not to shout at the right hon. Gentleman.

I know a thing or two about the 2003 Act because I sat on the Bill Committee. Let me tell the House something that I said at the time:

“If there is one thing that undermines people’s confidence in the criminal justice system, it is the feeling that time after time sentences are handed down but people are released halfway through them.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 11 February 2003; c. 954.]

That is why we opposed it.

Can the Prime Minister confirm something else? The only reason why this case—[Interruption.] They are shouting because they do not like it. They know that they are on the wrong side. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the only reason why this case can be sent back to the Court of Appeal for a tougher sentence to be considered is the Criminal Justice Act that we passed and which he voted against?

Again, all that we have done is to toughen the ability of the Attorney-General—[Interruption.] Yes, we have, as a matter of fact. I want to go back to what the right hon. Gentleman has said. He is completely wrong. Under the 2003 Act, if someone is sentenced to more than four years in prison—in other words, if it is a serious offence—they can no longer be paroled at the two-thirds point. Since April 2005, 1,000 indeterminate sentences have been handed down and no one has been paroled because of that Act. The right hon. Gentleman says that he and his colleagues support tough measures, but I have before me a press release put out just the other day by the shadow Leader of the House. We remember debating the 90 days or the 28 days for the detention of suspected terrorists. We were forced, because of the right hon. Gentleman’s votes, to have the 28 days. The shadow Leader of the House then attacked us for not introducing this measure quickly enough. The reason we are unable to introduce it quickly is that the Conservatives insisted on a longer consultation period, which prevented us from doing that. So at every stage, whether it involves antisocial behaviour, assets recovery, the Criminal Justice Act or terrorist legislation, the right hon. Gentleman talks tough but he votes soft.

Why does not the Prime Minister understand that the reason why criminals are not let out two thirds of the way through their sentence now is that, under his legislation, they are let out halfway through their sentence? In the past 40 days, the Home Secretary has blamed the judges, blamed the civil servants and tried to blame the public. Will the Prime Minister tell him to stop trying to blame everyone else and to get on with his job?

I notice that the right hon. Gentleman repeats the point that he is getting wrong. Since April 2005, 1,000 indeterminate sentences have been given, six have been considered for parole, and no one has been paroled. Those are the facts. As for the rest of the Tory attack, the fact is that, on all these pieces of legislation, they have either voted against them, dismissed them as gimmicks or refused to support them and tried to dilute them. However, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be bringing forward further measures, and we will then have the chance to see whether the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are prepared to back up their tough talk by changing the habits of opposition and actually voting for the legislation that does the job.

I know that the Prime Minister and the whole House will sympathise with the extreme distress and trauma caused to the three-year-old child who was abducted and sexually abused in Cardiff, and with the distress caused to her family, who are my constituents in Cardiff, North. I know that my right hon. Friend will not want to comment on the individual case, but will he do his best to press the Sentencing Guidelines Council to ensure that, following the review that it is undertaking, there will no longer be an automatic reduction in sentence in return for a guilty plea in the cases of the most serious crimes and the most dangerous offenders?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is exactly why, with indeterminate sentences, people are not able to get parole automatically, as they used to. Under the 2003 Act, the indeterminate sentence provisions were extended to a schedule of no fewer than 66 different offences. Therefore, even in circumstances where people are considered for parole, there is no automatic right to it. I think that that entirely meets her point. Furthermore, it is important to realise that, partly as a result of the work of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, but also as a result of what has happened over the past few years, not only has the number of prison places increased but sentences are longer and people are serving longer sentences. In relation to sexual offences in particular, the law has been strengthened considerably. The powers are there, and I hope that the courts use them to the fullest extent possible.

I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the condolences and sympathy expressed by the Prime Minister a moment or two ago.

In 2003, the energy White Paper described nuclear energy as an unattractive proposition on grounds of cost and waste. Can the Prime Minister tell us what has changed now?

I certainly can. First, energy prices are rising the entire time, which is why the whole issue of nuclear energy is back on the agenda not just of this country but of many other countries around the world. I think that 50 to 60 different nuclear power stations are being built this year, including the first in Europe for a long time. Secondly, our anxiety about climate change and the need to find clean sources of energy is increasing. Thirdly, when we consider our self-sufficiency in energy, we find that we are about 80 to 90 per cent. sufficient in oil and gas. Over the next 15 to 20 years, that will reverse, and we will have to import. Therefore, there are reasons of security of supply, rising energy costs and climate change. I am not saying that nuclear is the only answer—of course it is not. There are renewables, energy efficiency and everything else. However, I still think that nuclear must be at least part of the debate and argument if we are to make sure that our energy needs are properly and cleanly met for the future. That answers the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question.

The Prime Minister was not precise on the costs of nuclear power. Can he confirm that the taxpayer is liable for up to £90 billion to clean up the existing generation of nuclear power stations? Who will pay for a new generation of nuclear power stations? Will it be business, the taxpayer or the consumer?

Let me point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the decommissioning costs of existing nuclear power stations will have to be met in any event. The whole point—[Interruption.] Will hon. Members listen to the answer? The technology of nuclear power is also changing, and the new generation of nuclear power stations generate around one tenth of the waste of the previous generation. Therefore, if we are to take the correct long-term decisions for the future of this country, the debate must be engaged in and decided on now.

Q3. Last weekend, I was contacted by a constituent, Mrs. Karen Stupart, who tragically lost her husband John in a building site accident over 10 years ago. Mrs. Stupart was subsequently awarded more than £250,000 of damages through the courts, but she and her family have yet to receive one penny of that money. Her late husband’s former employers declared themselves bankrupt immediately after the award was made, and their insurers, Lombard, exploited a legal technicality to avoid making a payment. This Government can be justifiably proud of setting up the Pension Protection Fund to protect the pensions of workers whose employers go bust. Cannot we now consider extending that protection to compensatory payments made in cases of workplace negligence? Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss the extremely distressing circumstances of this case? (77006)

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend, and I extend my sympathy in relation to the situation that his constituent has experienced. He will know that employment tribunal awards, if unpaid, are enforced through the civil courts. The forthcoming Courts and Tribunals Bill, which we intend to publish in draft during this Parliament, will set out proposals for the reform of the current system of enforcement. At the moment, as he rightly points out, there is real anxiety that the system of enforcement does not adequately meet the needs of claimants. Publishing the Bill in draft will give us an opportunity to debate the issue and to see how we strengthen the law. I look forward to discussing the issue with him.

Multiple sclerosis nurses take the burden off the NHS, provide high-quality care and give patients the treatment that they need. Is the Prime Minister aware that the MS Trust says that, because of NHS cuts, a quarter of specialist posts are at risk? Given that each MS nurse saves the NHS £64,000, what will the Prime Minister do to ensure that crisis cuts to reduce budget deficits do not do long-term damage to our NHS?

Obviously, we have to make sure that the difficult financial decisions that need to be taken are taken, and that the NHS is in balance. Of course, the vast majority of trusts are either breaking even or are in balance. It is also important, however, to recognise that, even with the financial situation in the national health service, there is a huge amount of additional money going in, which has to be used by trusts in the most effective and efficient way possible. On MS, we have of course put a massive amount of additional money into MS, and into many of the other diseases that need management by the individual and by the system over a long period of time.

But it is not just MS nurses who are being affected; according to the Royal College of Nursing, 15,000 NHS jobs are being lost. At the Horton hospital in Banbury—an acute general hospital—we are seeing nursing posts being removed, the potential loss of consultants and emergency procedures in the maternity unit, and the ending of a full-time children’s service. Those sorts of cuts are happening throughout the NHS and are profoundly affecting the hospitals that serve our constituents, yet the Health Secretary says that this is the best ever year for the health service. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to apologise to the thousands of NHS staff for the crass insensitivity of that remark?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about job losses, but with the greatest of respect, when we look into a lot of those so-called job losses, we find that they are actually either posts that are not being filled or agency workers who are not being hired. Since we came to power, there have been about 250,000 additional people working in the national health service, and, in addition, we are paying them better than ever before and protecting their pensions. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to say that he is speaking up for the NHS and the nurses, but he opposed the extra investment in the national health service, he opposed the extra jobs in the national health service, he opposed the pay deals in the national health service, and now he wants to take away their pensions. So whoever else is in a good position to represent them, he certainly is not.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in warmly welcoming the apology given by the Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner, Andy Hayman, to the family whose home was raided and the residents of Forest Gate? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while the police must protect the public by acting on intelligence, they must do so in a sensitive way that does not alienate the community—in this case, the Muslim community?

First, I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concern, which she very properly raises as the constituency Member of Parliament. I also of course fully endorse what Andy Hayman said. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to say one other thing. Andy Hayman and his team do a superb job in protecting this country. They are faced with very difficult situations when they receive information or intelligence, and we can only imagine what would happen if they received intelligence, did not act on it, and something terrible occurred. Although I entirely endorse everything that Andy has very properly said, I also stand 101 per cent. behind the police and the security services in the difficult work that they do, and I do not want them to be inhibited in doing that work. They have to do what is necessary to protect the public, and they do it in a very fine and outstanding way.

Q4. Given that the Prime Minister’s Government’s plans for identity cards will require a complex new IT system, can he tell the House of any major Government IT project that has been delivered on budget or on time, or which works? (77007)

There is one that is quite closely linked to the identity card idea, which, of course, is the passport system. It required a complicated computer project and it has worked extremely well.

Q5. Britain led the world on climate change at the G8 summit last year. Now that the Government have pledged to make Government offices and agencies carbon neutral by 2012 by offsetting emissions through carbon-absorbing and carbon-reducing measures, will my right hon. Friend ensure that local government follows the Government’s lead and does the same? (77008)

My hon. Friend is right to say that local government has a responsibility too, but it is not for us to enforce that. I can assure him that we will do our best to persuade local government to join in the central Government initiative. He is also right to say that this country has a key leadership position on climate change, because we are meeting the Kyoto targets and have introduced the climate change levy. Incidentally, I notice that although the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives were supposed to be building a cross-party consensus on this, one of them has now—

The Prime Minister said that fewer people were getting parole as a direct consequence of his policies. That is wrong. Does he not realise that fewer people are getting parole because the probation service and the Parole Board have been destroyed by this Government? As a direct consequence of the activities of his Government, the Parole Board is unable to interview directly prisoners who should not be released, so they are released and commit terrible crimes. It is no good the Prime Minister shouting at the Opposition: he should know the facts before he makes such pronouncements.

With the greatest respect, the fact is that as a result of the Act the automatic parole that used to apply after two thirds of the sentence no longer applies. In relation to the Parole Board, we are trying to give a greater say to victims, and I would have thought that the hon. and learned Gentleman welcomed that.

Q6. If my right hon. Friend is serious in his desire to reform public services, it is crucial that the Government value public sector workers and continue to work with the trade unions in effecting change. Will he condemn the shoddy way in which some Liberal Democrat and Tory councils have treated their work force recently and reject the Tory argument that public sector pensions are unfair? (77009)

It is important to recognise that for all the difficulties in carrying through a tough process of public service reform, we have—as my hon. Friend rightly implies—employed some 80,000 extra nurses in the national health service, and about 250,000 more staff in total. Incidentally, they are not bureaucrats but front-line staff engaged in delivering good care. It is also true that we are paying our nurses, consultants and GPs a lot more. I personally think that that is a good idea and that they are worth it. In return for that, of course, we want to see the necessary changes made. My hon. Friend is right that it is the mixture of investment and reform that is at the heart of the issue, and it appears that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives oppose both.

Q7. Now that Ron Jones and others have lost the right to sue Saudi officials for torture, what meaningful legal redress is there for any Briton tortured abroad in the light of the Law Lords’ ruling? (77010)

May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that we intervened in this case in order to ensure that the rules of international law and state immunity are fully and accurately presented and upheld? That is important for us as a country and for others. But our strong position against torture remains unchanged: we utterly condemn it in every set of circumstances.

Another cloud of anxiety that hangs over the future of our energy supplies stems from the reports recently by the electricity generating industry that many of our coastline power stations are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In the energy review, are the Government prepared to consider whether new major power stations—including nuclear ones—should be sited inland?

I am sure that in the course of the energy review we will look at all those different issues, but my hon. Friend’s question highlights the urgency of the climate change question. It is apparent from all the evidence that has been presented, even in the past couple of years, on the issue of climate change that it is not only that the science has been accepted, but that the process of warming may be happening at a faster rate than we anticipated. My greatest worry is that there is a mismatch between the timing of the international community in getting the right agreements in place and the absolute necessity of taking urgent action now.

Q8. A senior police officer in the Republic of Ireland has confirmed that the 10,000 rounds of ammunition found there last week were the property of the Provisional IRA. He went on to say that there is still a lot of matériel out there. Does the Prime Minister agree that the full decommissioning that was promised to the people of Northern Ireland did not in fact happen? (77011)

I cannot agree with that. In the end, the test for decommissioning has to be applied by the Independent Monitoring Commission. Throughout the peace process of the past few years, we have sought some form of independent verification of whether claims made by the IRA, or others, are justified. That is why we introduced the IMC. It will look at all the evidence, including statements from people in the Republic or in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and make up its mind as a result. We must make our judgments on the basis of what it says. If we do not, we will lose the essential objectivity that is the only way to determine claim and counterclaim. The hon. Gentleman has long experience of these issues and will know that claims and counterclaims are made on all sides. The only way to determine them finally is through the process that we set up—and which he supported at the time.

Q9. May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that, for three-quarters of a century, it has suited the British establishment to suppress documents and circumstantial details relating to the execution of more than 300 British soldiers and officers—many of them brave—in the first world war? Does he recognise that there is overwhelming support in the country and this House of Commons for the proposal that he and the Secretary of State for Defence should review those executions and remedy the wrong by granting posthumous pardons, albeit very late in the day, and that they should do so on 1 July—the occasion of the first veterans day, and the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme? (77012)

I am very happy to look at what my hon. Friend says. I understand the concern to which he refers, and I shall get back to him with an answer. I know that what happened still causes people a great deal of distress and hurt, even after all these years.