The Secretary of State was asked—
Allied Steel and Wire Pension Scheme
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had a number of discussions with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions. The Government announced in May a large expansion of the financial assistance scheme, which will directly assist the Allied Steel and Wire staff.
In the Allied Steel and Wire case in the European Court of Justice, the Government have applied for temporal limitation so that only those involved directly in the case can benefit from a positive judgment. Can that be seen as an admission of guilt by the Government, and what is the Minister planning to say to his constituents who used to work for Motherwell Bridge and who have lost their pensions as a result?
As the hon. Lady says, the matter is before the European Court of Justice and the Government are reluctant to comment in any detail on the temporal limitation. However, it is interesting to note that no one raised any legal objections in the oral hearing in the court when the Government applied for the temporal limitation. I assure her, as a Cardiff Member, that, whatever the outcome of the ECJ decision staff at Allied Steel and Wire will not be affected, by the temporal limitation.
The Minister will know that we have suggested a comprehensive audit of unclaimed assets in the financial sector as a possible way of squaring the claim of ASW workers with the protection of the taxpayer. Will he undertake to press the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for such an audit?
For 18 years, the Conservative Government did absolutely nothing to address this issue. The financial assistance scheme has been expanded from £400 million in 2004 to £2.3 billion starting from this October. It will provide substantial assistance to Allied Steel and Wire staff and it has been widely welcomed, including by their trade union, Community. We accept that there are issues that have to be resolved in the European Court of Justice, but we are confident that the scheme that is now in place will go a long way towards providing protection for staff who have lost their pensions. On top of that, we have the Pension Protection Fund, which will provide long-term security for people who have invested their savings in occupational pensions.
As my right hon. Friend will no doubt acknowledge, child poverty is still a problem in Wales. However, the Conservatives opposed tax credits and the minimum wage, and oppose almost anything that helps the poorest families. Those families would have been far worse off if the Conservatives had been in power.
Not surprisingly, I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. We have seen 700,000 children lifted out of poverty right across the United Kingdom, but she is right: we still need to do more. We have increased child benefit by a record amount and we have improved entitlement to maternity and paternity leave for new parents—all measures opposed by the Conservative Opposition. We have also created extra places in nursery and child care. All those programmes would be put at risk by the Tories’ plans for public spending cuts in Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Child tax credits, like the employment tax credits, have an administrative cost, but they target the resources on those most in need, including children in Wales and right across the United Kingdom—and, I dare say, also in the hon. Lady’s constituency. The Conservatives’ repeated attempts to sabotage the programme—they opposed it in the first place and they would like to scrap it—would leave thousands of children in Wales and hundreds of thousands of children across the United Kingdom destitute, as they were when the Tories were last in power.
I must say that for a Labour Member to raise the issue of tax credits is like the captain of the Titanic offering guided tours of the hole in his boat. Is the Secretary of State aware that in Powys alone last year one in three tax credits awarded were overpaid, leaving nearly 5,000 people to pay back £4.3 million to the Revenue? Those errors are seriously harming our most vulnerable families. When will the Government get to grips with this malfunctioning system?
Witty jousting is no substitute for a serious policy. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a serious policy of tax credits has helped families and people by the thousand in his constituency of Montgomeryshire and by the tens of thousands throughout Wales. The Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Opposition and Plaid Cymru have put forward no coherent alternative to that anti-poverty programme, which, as a Labour Government, we are proud to have led.
Police Force Mergers
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Yesterday, the Welsh Affairs Committee heard repeatedly from the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety that the Government remained firmly attached to an all-Wales police force, yet we have also heard about an extended period of consultation. Will that consultation include a full examination of what the Minister described as “innovative alternatives”, including the federated model that the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) has been advancing, or is this another example of game, set and match before the match has even started?
I am not sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen has made that point, but I will certainly check. It is significant that no chief constable—especially Barbara Wilding, the chief constable of South Wales police force, which is the largest in Wales—has supported the idea of a federation. She makes the compelling point that that would not work. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary advanced the original case for a single police force in Wales to bring together capabilities for tackling the huge new threats of serious and organised crime, drug dealing and terrorist activity. The problem with the Liberal Democrats and other critics of the policy is that they do not have a serious alternative for dealing with those new threats, and until they produce one, no one will take their criticism seriously.
I am still slightly unclear about the Government’s position. If the police authorities and, perhaps, the chief constables were to come up with a viable alternative, would it be accepted as something for consideration and discussion, or will we just have a merger because there is absolutely no other choice? If there were a viable alternative, would the Government’s mind still be open?
Obviously, we want to ensure that we proceed with as much consent as possible so that we can tackle the new threats. As I said, no one has yet provided an alternative that would deal with those threats or deliver the capabilities to measure up to them. Of course we are not going into this with a closed mind. The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety made it clear to the Welsh Affairs Committee the other day that he thought that some of the handling of the matter over recent months could have been better, so he is now ensuring that that happens. None of the four chief constables to whom I have spoken—I am seeing the North Wales chief constable next week—has come up with an alternative. If someone does, of course we will not have a closed mind to it, but I do not see an alternative at the moment.
I regularly meet Health Ministers and the Assembly Health Minister. The Assembly Government are investing record amounts in the NHS in Wales and delivering real improvements in the standard of services to all Welsh patients.
I thank the Minister for his answer. On 30 November last year, the Prime Minister stated that no one would wait more than six months for an NHS operation. The latest figures show that 120 English patients have been waiting for more than six months at an English hospital, yet 786 Welsh patients have been waiting at an English hospital for more than six months. Clearly, the Government’s claim is completely false, but there also appears to be discrimination against Welsh patients.
The latest figures show that 768 Welsh patients have been waiting more than six months for treatment in an English hospital, and that represents a significant reduction of 14 per cent. on the previous year. The number of out-patients waiting for treatment in English hospitals has fallen by 43 per cent. Waiting times are plummeting throughout Wales. We are meeting targets on reducing waiting times, and that is a result of the massive investment that is now going into the health service in Wales. We will be spending £5 billion this year, which represents a rise of over 80 per cent. since 1999. That is £1,600 a person. We now have 450 more consultants and 7,300 more nurses, and our budget for new hospital buildings will go up to £309 million in the next financial year. That is a record of which we are proud. Waiting times are coming down significantly, and it is a record of real achievement.
Many of my constituents are treated in English hospitals. Will my hon. Friend give me an absolute assurance that he will support my right to ask questions on their behalf about their treatment? Will he assure me that in no circumstances he will take that right away, which is what Conservative Members have suggested?
As my hon. Friend is well aware, the Conservatives intend to treat Welsh and Scottish MPs as second-class citizens in the House. I can assure him that he will still be able to put questions to the Department of Health and the Wales Office, which would not be the case under the Opposition, who are proposing to create a second tier of second-class MPs. That is outrageous.
The target waiting time for English patients at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt hospital at Gobowen is six months. For Welsh patients it is 12 months, so will the Minister please explain why my constituents, who pay their taxes and national insurance contributions at exactly the same rate as English patients, should be expected to wait in pain for six months longer?
As I stated to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), significant and massive investment is aimed specifically at reducing waiting times. Where we have an arrangement with an English hospital, discussions are ongoing about waiting times, the costs of operations and so forth, but I can assure the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) and his constituents that much of this year’s £5 billion going into the NHS is targeted on reducing waiting times. Waiting times are plummeting in Wales, as they are in England. Indeed, it is a record of achievement.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that enlightening answer. From 1998 to December 2005, 331 post offices—one in every four—closed in Wales. A further avalanche is expected with the loss of the TV licence contract and the phasing out of card accounts. Yet the main campaigning tool in Blaenau Gwent was a Labour petition to re-open the post offices. Was that not a rather cynical exercise that saw through by the people of Blaenau Gwent?
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that in some instances post offices close because the postholder is retiring and the property is no longer available? Will he discuss with his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry whether, when it is difficult to find a building to carry on a post office service, it would be possible to provide a mobile service so that our constituents do not suffer?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point and a compelling argument that mobile post offices could be slotted in to fill gaps in the circumstances that she describes. That could provide a viable alternative in many rural areas across Wales. I will certainly take up her request and do as she asks.
In Brecon and Radnorshire, 6,800 people hold post office accounts and the demise of the facility will lead to financial inconvenience and reduce the viability of post offices. On top of that, Rev. Marian Morgan from New Radnor reports to me that a recently re-housed homeless person is unable to save up for a TV licence because the savings scheme has been abolished, and he will have to travel 10 miles to the nearest town to get his TV licence. In those circumstances, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the continuing viability of rural post offices?
This is a real issue, as it was under the previous Conservative Government, when 3,500 post offices closed, mostly in rural areas. It has been a continuing problem for all Governments as a result of different consumer patterns and so on. However, we need to do as much as we can to deal with the sort of examples that the hon. Gentleman describes in his constituency, which is largely rural. That is why we have made unprecedented investment since 1997 of more than £2 billion to help maintain the post office network. That includes £150 million this year. We look to provide what extra support we can.
Post Office card accounts and credit unions have successfully helped people in Wales to stay out of debt. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and I held a recent workshop on financial exclusion, which was targeted at people in the Ogmore and Bridgend constituencies. One of the suggestions that people attending the workshop made was that we should build greater links between credit unions and post offices, whereby additional income could come in to post offices and credit unions could provide access to low-cost loans. Will the Secretary of State examine the potential in Wales to build on that partnership?
I would be happy to do that. I am a member of my local credit union in Neath Port Talbot. Credit unions do an important job, and there is scope for those who use post offices for banking services to bring extra income and customers into post offices, especially as credit unions offer low interest rates to many people on low incomes. As my hon. Friend suggests, it is a win-win situation for credit unions and local post offices.
My right hon. Friend and I have regular meetings with both ministerial colleagues and colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government on a range of topics, including agriculture.
The Under-Secretary will know that roadkill badgers are currently being tested for TB. What discussions has he held with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the results of those tests and will he make a statement to the House about them?
DEFRA and the Assembly Government are working closely together on bovine TB. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Welsh Assembly Government are testing roadkill badgers, and the results of that study will be available in September or October. Once it is made available, a decision will be made about the next step to take in Wales on bovine TB.
Latest figures for Wales show average weekly earnings of £454.40 in 2005, which is 87.9 per cent of the average for the UK as a whole.
I thank the Under-Secretary for that reply. Average wages in Preseli Pembrokeshire increased only modestly in the past five years and remain well below the UK and Welsh averages. In contrast, house prices have soared by more than 170 per cent. in that period. What is he doing specifically to tackle the growing crisis of housing affordability, which affects families and young people throughout Wales? What steps are his Labour colleagues in the Assembly taking to deal with that problem? Why do they not deliver the social housing that is required in Wales?
In fact, in the past year, the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and mine have experienced the fastest rise in average earnings in Wales. In the past four years, average earnings in Wales have risen faster than in England. We are closing the gap, especially in the objective 1 area, where there have been increases of 21 per cent. in average earnings in the past four years.
The problem of the affordability of housing is not unique to west Wales—it applies throughout Wales and the rest of the country. The Government are investing significant sums in tackling that problem. We are ensuring that social housing funds are available, working with housing associations to develop new schemes and considering innovative schemes such as community land trusts. I expect Pembrokeshire housing association and Pembrokeshire county council to examine those radical and innovative ways of providing affordable social housing in his and my communities.
Given the importance of Airbus to the Welsh economy and to the earnings of 6,500 people in Wales, and now that there is a shift from the use of metallic materials to composites in new aircraft design and manufacture, does the Minister share my alarm at the reports that the Spanish Government are targeting our wing business in Wales? Will he guarantee that he will do everything in his power to ensure his Cabinet colleagues’ support for the new A350 aircraft?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently met Airbus senior management because of the latest concerns about EADS and its share price. He was assured that Airbus has a long-term commitment to both Broughton and Filton. They are world leaders in wing production and have a skills base that is almost unique—the only other is in Seattle, in the United States. My right hon. Friend was assured of the long-term future of Airbus investment in Broughton and Filton.
Of course we have done that, and we have put significant launch project funding into all the schemes that Airbus has promoted—about £21 billion over the years. There is no question but that the Government are fully backing the Airbus project. Bearing in mind that investment and the jobs in Broughton that are dependent on it, I am concerned that the hon. Lady is now raising these issues—they do not exist.
Airbus employs more than 7,000 people at Broughton, and that has been possible due to the support of this Government, investing in successful manufacturing. Airbus is European co-operation; does my hon. Friend agree that the Conservative party’s attitude to Europe could well threaten the future of such co-operation?
I totally agree. My hon. Friend emphasises the importance of Airbus not just to the local economy but to the economy of north Wales and north-west England. It provides more than 7,000 extremely well-paid jobs, and it is there because the Government have regularly invested substantial sums to support the development of new technology at that plant and in Filton. As my hon. Friend says, the anti-European attitude that still runs through the Conservative party threatens that co-operation.
One of the main reasons Wales is languishing at the bottom of the wages league under this Government is the loss of high-wage manufacturing jobs. The Labour candidate in Blaenau Gwent said that existing Government policy had failed and there was a desperate need for a new manufacturing strategy. Does the Minister, or indeed the Chancellor, agree?
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that just recently, although there have been problems in certain companies, International Rectifier, which makes semiconductors, has brought 250 well-paid jobs to Newport; Ford, developing the new Volvo engine in Bridgend, has created 250 new jobs; LogicaCMG has created 765 well-paid jobs with a high-tech MOD contract; and other jobs are being created in the finance and service sectors. Although there may well be problems in certain sectors, the economy in Wales is diverse. We are seeing expansion upon expansion, and new jobs are being created where other, older jobs are being lost. It is a dynamic economy and we are moving forward. Wales is doing extremely well.
Search and Rescue Operations
Search and rescue provision in the UK is continuously reviewed by the UK search and rescue strategic committee and its associated working groups. No changes to the level of service are currently planned to the helicopter search and rescue service in Wales, operated by the Ministry of Defence and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
I thank my hon. Friend for that response. He will be aware of the excellent work that is done by the search and rescue community in Wales and the contribution of Squadron 22 that is based at RAF Valley. He will be further aware that the headquarters of SAR is to be moved to Valley in the coming year. There are concerns about the harmonisation that is planned by the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Transport. Owing to financial savings involving the private finance initiative, that could undermine the operations and deployments in place. Can the Minister give assurances that that will not be the case? Will he press the MOD and the Department for Transport for those assurances?
I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. Rigorous assessment of options by the joint MOD-Marine and Coastguard Agency procurement team led to a recommendation of harmonisation under a private finance initiative. The MOD and the MCA will continue jointly to manage and task the service, and will retain a high proportion of military aircrews. There will be no reductions in the service provision of search and rescue helicopters. The Government are committed to delivering a future service that is at least as effective as the present one. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the House will join me in sending our condolences and sympathy to the families of Corporal Peter Thorpe and Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi, who were killed in Afghanistan over the weekend. They were immensely brave and committed soldiers and we mourn their loss deeply.
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.
In the past week we have witnessed the systematic destruction of the infrastructure that the Palestinian people need for their survival. Does the Prime Minister agree that this military action is in breach of international law and constitutes collective punishment that the international community should condemn and bring to an end as soon as possible?
I entirely agree that the situation is very serious. We have made it clear what we believe that the Israeli Government should do in the circumstances. However, I return to the point that I have made on many occasions. We can condemn Israel on the one hand or the Palestinian Authority on the other. The only thing that will resolve this issue ultimately is a restart to the negotiation process and a two-state solution that is in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians.
As London has its own elected assembly and a directly elected Mayor, who even has his own foreign policy, does my right hon. Friend think that the time is approaching when we should ban London Members from voting—[Interruption.]
Tempting though that occasionally might be, no. I think that it is important that we have one class of Member of Parliament, which is an essential part of our constitution. I hope very much that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) will rethink his position on this. It is wholly contrary to the spirit of our constitution, and an utterly irresponsible thing to do or propose.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the two servicemen killed in Afghanistan on 1 July – Corporal Peter Thorpe and Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi. Lance Corporal Hashmi’s family said yesterday that he was proud to serve in the British Army, and that you can be proud to be both Muslim and British. The family is right and the extremists who seek to divide us are wrong.
The British troops in Afghanistan have our full support. Preventing that country from becoming again a rogue state that backs terror is, inevitably, a complex mission. It means supporting the Afghan Government in a range of tasks and confronting the Taliban. Major General Peter Wall has said that resistance has been “more virulent” than had been anticipated. Can the Prime Minister confirm that that is the case?
Yes, it is clear that the Taliban will fight hard, particularly in the south of the country, to regain their foothold and turn Afghanistan back into a failed state where al-Qaeda had its headquarters and the people were brutally oppressed by a regime that was not just bloody in what it did to its own people but in what it exported to the rest of the world. So, yes, they will fight hard, and the mission of the British forces is absolutely clear, as is the mission of the other forces, for example, Germany and Italy in the north and west of the country: it is to support the Afghan Government centrally and locally so that they can reconstruct their country and so that what the Afghans voted for—a stable, prosperous, democratic, tolerant society—can come about.
The Prime Minister said yesterday that to date he had received no requests for reinforcements. Does that statement cover equipment, including helicopter lift capacity? What discussions has he had with our NATO allies, so that should further combat troops or equipment be required our allies will also make an increased contribution?
We have not at the present time received a request from the commanders on the ground for more resources, either for logistics or for troops, but of course they will look carefully, now that we are in Helmand province, at what we need. As I indicated yesterday, if they need more, we will make sure that they get more. In the end, it is important to realise that the operational plans are drawn up and implemented by the commanders on the ground, which is how it should be, but if they desire more from us, of course, we will make sure that we give them every support.
I just want to make it clear that the British troops who are there are doing the most extraordinary and heroic job. They are fighting a battle that is important not just for the security of Afghanistan but for the security of the wider world. It is absolutely right that we give them every support, and we will do so. Sadly, we have lost troops in Afghanistan, and so have many other countries, including Germany, Italy and Spain. It is important to realise that when they give their lives in the service of our country they do so in support of a mission that is absolutely necessary and vital to our security in this country.
At the heart of the whole mission is the reconstruction of Afghanistan. There are many different people involved, including the Afghan Government, the aid agencies and the UN. Last week, the shadow Foreign Secretary suggested appointing a special representative mandated by the UN and approved by the Afghan Government to help to bring those efforts together. The Minister for Europe said that that was “a sensible suggestion”, and I wonder whether the Prime Minister has given further consideration to the proposal to ensure good co-ordination on the ground.
I have not given consideration to it myself, but no doubt we will do so, and if it is sensible we will do it. The most important thing is to try to back the efforts of the Afghan Government to build up their own police and army and make sure that their economy, which the Taliban effectively turned into a narco economy, is reconstructed on a basis that does not depend on the drugs trade. That is a very difficult mission, for which we have lead responsibility in the whole of Afghanistan.
That is important, too, for other countries. In the south of the country, we have about 3,600 troops at the moment, and there are about 6,000 troops from other countries. That is a NATO and United Nations mission, and it is important that the international community realise that it is not just about the British and American effort but about the united effort of the international community. We have to stay the course. Whether it is in Afghanistan, where we are supporting efforts at democracy—millions of Afghans came out and decided that they wanted a democracy—or in Iraq, our job is to stand alongside our allies, fighting the terrorists and fighting for democracy.
Given the disappointing failure of last weekend’s world trade talks, will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that he will use his best endeavours to ensure that western leaders live up to their promises to provide a fairer trade deal for the world’s poor?
I shall do my level best. There are two aspects to the issue. First, we must make sure that we secure a proper development package, including aid for trade, which is important for the poorest countries so that they have the capacity to trade properly if markets are opened up. In addition, we will try, even at this late hour—and it is very late indeed—to make sure that the other countries come together and support us in trying to ensure that we do not just have freer markets in Europe, the United States and Japan but freer non-agricultural market access in the G20 countries, including Brazil and India. However, it is very, very late in the day to secure an agreement, and the next couple of weeks will be critical, particularly in the run-up to the G8 conference.
May I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of condolence and sympathy from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition?
On 1 March the Prime Minister told me that he did not believe that the arrangements for the extradition of United Kingdom citizens to the United States were unfair. Does he still believe that?
I do believe that the arrangements are not unfair, for the reason that I can give the right hon. and learned Gentleman, although I totally understand the concern of the individuals who are to be extradited and their families as to what may happen, particularly in terms of bail, when they get to the United States. I will say more about that in a moment. What is important to realise is that the changes that we made a few years ago ended a situation where the United States was uniquely, to its detriment, not given the same arrangements as other countries. The purpose of the change—[Interruption.] Listen to the facts. The purpose of the change was to bring the United States into line not merely with European countries, but with countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. That was the purpose of the change, but I totally understand the concern about bail arrangements and other matters.
Once cannot but observe, what about the principle of reciprocity? What could be more unfair than for a British citizen to be extradited to the United States without a prima facie case and under a treaty that the United States declines to ratify? Will the Prime Minister act to bring an end to this practice?
If I may again deal with the reciprocal arrangements, it is not true that the United States has a different evidential burden from this country. The probable cause, which is the burden that the United States places on countries that want to extradite from the United States, is analogous to what we now provide under the Extradition Act 2003. It is not correct to say that the United States has been given preferential treatment or that the arrangements in respect of evidence are not reciprocal. However, I do understand the real concern that the families will have about what happens when they go to the United States, and I have asked our officials to see whether there is any support or assurances that we can give so that if they are extradited, they are given the opportunity to be bailed.
The Prime Minister will be aware of the scourge of human trafficking, which has brought several thousand young girls to work as sex slaves in massage parlours and brothels in the UK. There is a Council of Europe convention on the matter, which 26 members of the Council of Europe have signed. Britain, alas, is not one of them. An all-party group of MPs is working on this. I do not ask the Prime Minister to agree at the Dispatch Box today to sign the convention, although that would be very welcome to Amnesty International, the Anti-Slavery Association and others working in the field. If he cannot do that, will he agree to meet an all-party group, who will try to persuade him that the Home Office officials resisting the convention are wrong and the new Home Office team should sign it forthwith?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of the extra money that has gone in. It is that extra money which, for example, in the strategic health authority in which his constituency is situated, has meant more than 6,000 more nurses, 800 more doctors and over 1,000 more consultants; and for treatment for the patients, all the waiting times, out-patient and in-patient, have come down dramatically. But all health trusts will have to live within their means. That is so, irrespective of the amount of money that we put in. It is important that health authorities and the trusts take the decisions that are necessary to put our health service on a sustainable basis. That sustainable basis is one where waiting times will continue to fall and treatment will continue to improve.
Does my right hon. Friend recall his Defence Minister saying in April that the Helmand mission would last three years and the British Army would come out of it without firing a single shot? Five of our soldiers have died, and many Afghans have died—some Taliban and some civilians. With this mission, which has been described by many in the military and elsewhere as a mission impossible, are we not in grave danger of driving the ordinary people of Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban? Could we explain to our American friends that we cannot win hearts and minds by using bombs and bullets?
First, let me correct the impression, which my hon. Friend has just repeated, that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that not a shot would be fired on this mission. My right hon. Friend actually said that he would be happy if that were so, but went on to warn people that
“We are here to stabilise and build the country and the Taliban and the terrorists want to stop us doing that. If they attack us we will defend ourselves and if defending ourselves at the operational level means taking pre-emptive action we will do that.”
He did not say that it was a mission without danger—he said precisely the opposite. On the idea that, somehow, we are driving people into the arms of the Taliban, there is a democratic Government in Afghanistan for the first time. That is why girls have been allowed back into school, which I would have thought even my hon. Friend would support. Our job is to stay with those people who want Afghanistan to progress as a democracy and to defeat the terrorists—anything else would be a dereliction of duty.
This week marks the anniversary of the first suicide bombing attacks in Britain. The whole country will remember the 52 people of all faiths and none who were killed and the hundreds who were wounded. Of the 500 victims who have applied for compensation, almost 300 are still waiting for final settlement. Does the Prime Minister agree that those people should not have to wait so long?
I agree that it is important that their claims for compensation are dealt with as quickly as possible. Obviously, the compensation authority is independent from the Government, but it is trying to make sure that not only the interim claims but the full claims are paid out as soon as possible. We constantly discuss that matter with the compensation authority as well as with the relatives of the victims of 7/7.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister was right to emphasise the role that the Muslim community itself should play in helping to root out extremism, but we all have a role to play in helping to foster a greater sense of common citizenship. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need an ambitious nationwide programme, including youth volunteering and school exchanges, as part of that? Does he further agree that such a programme would work best with the participation of all parties right from the start? And will he make sure that that happens in all cases in future?
I agree that it is important that we engage everyone in fostering good community relations and in saying that irrespective of whether people are of one religion or creed or another, we share the British values of tolerance, respect for other people, democracy and liberty. It is important that those values are carried through into every part of our community, and I welcome the help and participation of all political parties in that. Indeed, it is very much to the credit of the political system in this country that all major parties are committed to such a future for Britain. When I said yesterday that I think it important that the Muslim community confront the issues within it, I did not mean to diminish our responsibility to do our part, too. The fact is that we are all going to have work very hard at rooting out extremism. We face a global movement with a global ideology, and we will defeat it only when we defeat its ideas as well as its methods.
Reports today have once again highlighted the recent increases both in household fuel bills and the profits of energy companies. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Department of Trade and Industry to look at the case being made by consumer organisations for a better use of social tariffs, which bring down fuel bills for vulnerable consumers while at the same time meaning that those who consume more energy and the power companies pay more?
There has always been a system of parole in this country. I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that over these past few years prison sentences have been longer and there have been more people in prison. What is important is that there is consistency in sentencing, and we are working on that with the Sentencing Guidelines Council.
No, I can assure my hon. Friend that that is not my intention. As a member of the Conservative party said yesterday, such a thing would be a constitutional abortion. It would be completely wrong. The fact is that our constitution relies on there being one class of MP in this House. That is absolutely right, and under this Government it will always remain so.
First, I should like to congratulate Churchfields school in my hon. Friend’s constituency on attaining specialist status. A majority of schools are now specialist schools, and their results are improving very rapidly; they go alongside those of the city academy programme. The truth is that having significantly raised results in primary schools, we are now creating the basis upon which we can get those increased results in secondary schools as well. This is all part of the process of investment and reform to give us a 21st century education system.
Can the Prime Minister explain to my constituents why they face the prospect of the downgrading of the accident and emergency unit at St. Richard’s hospital in Chichester and the downgrading of the A and E unit at Worthing hospital, why Littlehampton hospital is a pile of rubble, with the rebuilding programme on hold, and why the Richard Hotham mental health unit in Bognor Regis war memorial hospital is to close just five years after it opened?
I do not know about the specific circumstances of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. However, I have no doubt that if I do look at the specific circumstances, I will find that there has been massive investment in health care services in his constituency, all of which was opposed by him and his colleagues, that waiting lists are down, and that cancer and cardiac treatment is better. Yes, it is true that difficult decisions have to be taken in all constituencies as to how we configure health care for today’s world, but those decisions need to be taken no matter how much money is put in. It is absurd for Conservatives to complain about funding in the health service when they voted against the very funding that we put in.
I give my congratulations to my hon. Friend’s hospital. If we take health care throughout the entire country, we see that it is not merely that in-patient and out-patient waiting lists are dramatically different from where they were nine years ago. In accident and emergency departments, which we were discussing a moment or two ago, I think that most people would say, never mind even on a statistical basis, that they are considerably improved from where they were a few years ago. That is because we have not only put in extra money and staff but reformed the system of working. Many congratulations to my hon. Friend’s hospital; I am sure that that situation is replicated in many places throughout the country.
Again, I do not know the precise circumstances of the situation in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I shall be very happy to look into the matter and to write to him about it. I am sure he would accept, however, that, as a result of the investment that has been put into his constituency and many others, all the measurements for waiting times for treatments are now significantly better than they were a few years ago. But, as I said in answer to a question a moment ago, no matter how much money we put in, there will be a limit, and health authorities and trusts must operate within that limit.
The issue that my hon. Friend raises is an important one for industry, and it is one that the energy review specifically addresses. We need to improve our storage capacity for the energy that we import, but we also need to ensure that we have a sustainable basis for energy supply that will not make us dependent on imports. As my hon. Friend rightly implies, prices have gone up three times in the past few months, which has made things very difficult for intensive energy users. The answer is to keep the economy stable, which we are doing, and to ensure that we have secure supplies for the future.
I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy offered by the other leaders for those who are in deep sorrow today.
Is the Prime Minister aware that the Northern Ireland Assembly is to come back on Friday? Is he also aware that IRA-Sinn Fein have announced that they will boycott that meeting? Does he agree that the deputy leader of IRA-Sinn Fein would be better employed doing the work that he is supposed to be doing for his constituency, rather than going round the world praising other terrorist organisations and their murder campaigns?
Obviously, it is important that that debate takes place on Friday, and I hope that everyone will participate in it. However, the single thing that would make the biggest difference, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman accepts, would be to ensure that we have proper devolved institutions in which these debates and decisions can take place.
We will have a debate on Africa at St. Petersburg, where I hope we will recommit ourselves to the commitments made by the G8 last year. There has been substantial progress on debt relief, which has meant that hundreds of thousands of people in countries such as Nigeria, for example, are now able to have schooling that they would otherwise not have had. We have also put forward a plan, with funding, to achieve near-universal access to HIV-AIDS treatment. Treatment of the killer diseases is another key objective from Gleneagles that we are taking forward. Furthermore, our £8.5 billion investment in education in countries overseas over the next 10 years is an example of this country playing a leading role in what I have often described as the great moral cause of our time.
Given that we want to get people out of cars and on to trains, will the Prime Minister explain to my constituents why the Minister for Transport has accepted a bid that included a baseline proposal of an increase in fares and fewer passengers on First Capital Connect’s lines?
It is, of course, important that we get more people using public transport. In the end, however, the companies must make ends meet, and the only way in which the Government could avoid such developments would be through putting even greater public subsidy into transport. I know that the hon. Lady was not a Member of the House at the time, but when we put forward plans allowing us to treble transport expenditure, her party voted against them.
As I understand it, an appeal against that decision continues. In respect of Ebixa, I think that I am right that NICE said that it should be part of a clinical trial rather than available now. We are putting more research and development money into cures for Alzheimer’s and dementia, but I totally understand the concern, which has led to the appeal. The fact is that having an independent system under NICE has been right. My hon. Friend will remember how many different arguments there were, before we set up that institute, about whether treatments were justified. The system is right; the decision can be looked at.