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Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2006

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?

Q2. Everyone recognises the extra money that has been spent on the NHS, so why is Musgrove Park hospital in Taunton struggling with a £6 million deficit? Why does it have to close the Alfred Morris centre, which gives specialist treatment to people with severe head injuries, and why do people from my constituency still have to travel 100 miles to Bristol and back to receive cancer treatment? (82383)

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?

I am sure that those at the DTI will have heard my hon. Friend’s words and will no doubt look into them.

Q3. Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) launched “Safer”, a campaign to stop all forms of early release. Given that a poll conducted over the weekend shows that 89 per cent. of the public support such action, does the Prime Minister think that the time has come to make sure that prisoners serve the sentence handed down by the courts in full, and if not, why not? (82384)

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.

Q4. My right hon. Friend knows that I am a Glasgow MP representing a Glasgow constituency. Is it his intention to make me a second-class MP representing a second-class nation? (82385)

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.

Will the Prime Minister tell the House on how many occasions he has started an investigation under his ministerial code, and whether he thinks it appropriate that his Deputy Prime Minister should stay with an American business man—

Order. This matter has been put before the Parliamentary Commissioner, and there will be no more discussion about it until the Parliamentary Commissioner has dealt with it.

Q5. Churchfields school in my constituency was one of 100 schools that achieved specialist status earlier this week. The school, where I am a governor, was in special measures until three years ago, so specialist science and maths status represents a considerable achievement by the staff and students. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Churchfields and all the new specialist schools? Does he agree that specialist schools not only provide choice and a guarantee of educational achievement for parents but are crucial in fulfilling our aim of motivating schools to achieve better results— (82386)

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.

Q6. Despite some very challenging financial situations in my constituency, the staff of Southport and Ormskirk hospital have done fantastic work in meeting, ahead of schedule, the Government’s waiting list targets and achieving the best waiting times for A and E in the strategic health authority. Does my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating those staff? (82387)

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.

Q7. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating staff at Winchcombe hospital in my constituency on the services that they provide for the quite elderly population there? Given that the Government quite rightly want to see more patients being treated closer to home, will he also join me in condemning the decision by the local health trust to close the hospital? (82388)

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.

Q8. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree not only that the rising energy costs for domestic customers are unfair but that the whole of the manufacturing sector is now suffering because of the rise in energy bills of between 35 and 40 per cent. in the past 12 months? That is placing the heavy users of energy in this country’s industrial sector at a disadvantage compared with our European competitors. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to get a fair deal from the energy companies? (82389)

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.

Q9. Africa bears 24 per cent. of the global disease burden, yet it has only 3 per cent. of the world’s health workers and 1 per cent. of the world’s health spending. A year on from the Gleneagles G8 summit, how does my right hon. Friend view the progress that we have made on Africa and on climate change? What steps will he take to ensure that those two issues are kept at the top of the international agenda at St. Petersburg and beyond? (82390)

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.

Q10. My right hon. Friend will be aware that at the end of May, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence confirmed its decision to restrict the Alzheimer’s drugs Aricept, Exelon and Reminyl, and completely to withdraw Ebixa from the NHS. That decision was met by Alzheimer’s carers and doctors with utter dismay, and it will obviously have an adverse effect on 750,000 Alzheimer’s sufferers. Even at this late stage, will my right hon. Friend revisit that decision? (82391)

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.